Feb. 20, 1944, was the first day of Big Week, the all-out Allied assault on German aircraft production. It was expected that these attacks, together with losses of defending German fighters, would so weaken the Luftwaffe that the Allies would gain relative freedom of the air over Germany.
The weather had been forecast to be good for several days, but as so often happened, the forecast was a bust. Throughout the night of Feb. 19-20, weather reconnaissance planes reported ceilings over the UK of 8,000 feet with severe icing in the clouds. Because daylight was brief at that time of year at that latitude, the strike force would have to take off before dawn, climb through heavy icing, and form up in the dark. The go/no go decision was up to Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, commander of US Strategic Air Forces in Europe. Supported principally by his deputy for operations, Maj. Gen. Frederick L. Anderson, General Spaatz made the agonizing decision to launch 16 wings of Eighth Air Force bombers–more than 1,000 in all–against aircraft plants in Germany, escorted by 17 fighter groups.
As B-17s and B-24s taxied out for takeoff at bomber bases throughout the UK on that cold February morning, a few veteran crews had been called on to lead the way and form up under these hazardous conditions. The members of 2d Lt. Frederick Rawson’s 44th Bomb Group crew, however, were not veterans. They were on their first mission, flying B-24 serial number 42-100373 and assigned to a target at Helmstedt, while a larger force would hit the Bf-109 factories at Leipzig. Rawson’s new boys were tail-end Charlies in their formation, directed to bomb from 13,000 feet, then climb to 18,000 for their return to the UK.
All went better than some had expected until “bombs away,” when things began to fall apart as clouds of flak surrounded the formation. One of the early bursts knocked out Rawson’s right engine and did undetermined structural damage to the B-24. Rawson was not able to hold formation on the climb to higher altitude. The straggler came under attack by swarms of Luftwaffe fighters. A Bf-109 in the first wave set fire to the tail section, wounding the tailgunner, Sgt. Russell Wapensky. Successive attacks damaged the rudder controls, jammed the elevators, knocked out the intercom, and silenced some of the bomber’s guns. One waist gunner, Sgt. Robert Shultz, was killed instantly; the other, Sgt. John Hoffman, was wounded, as were ball turret gunner Sgt. Julian Winfree and flight engineer SSgt. Richard McCoy.
The burning B-24 was barely controllable. Lieutenant Rawson sent copilot 2d Lt. James Lewis to the rear of the aircraft to give a bail-out order. The wounded waist gunner, flight engineer, and ball turret gunner already had taken to their chutes. Navigator 2d Lt. William Johnston and bombardier 2d Lt. Bill Richardson went out the nose wheel door.
As Lieutenant Lewis prepared to jump, he saw that pilot Rawson, who was fighting to keep the B-24 under control until the crew could bail out, could not get out of his seat. The release of his flak jacket was jammed, and his parachute nowhere in sight. Lewis released Rawson from his seat, found the pilot’s chute, and buckled it on him. Satisfied that Rawson could make it out of the shot-up plane, Lewis entered the bomb bay to be sure all crew members had left or were able to parachute out. There he saw Sergeant Wapensky, the wounded tailgunner, standing on the catwalk, his clothing smoldering and his chute riddled by 20-mm shells. There was no spare chute aboard.
Lieutenant Lewis would not leave the wounded man to die in the imminent flaming crash. He saw only one alternative. Lewis hoisted Wapensky onto his back and dove out of the bomb bay. The shock of the chute opening broke Wapensky’s grip from around Lieutenant Lewis’s neck, and the tailgunner fell to his death.
The men who had successfully bailed out landed in farm country and immediately were rounded up by armed German civilians. The body of navigator Johnston, whose chute did not open, lay nearby. Winfree and McCoy were taken to a hospital but did not survive their wounds. Rawson, Lewis, Richardson, Hoffman, and radio operator SSgt. Gerald Reader, were sent to Frankfurt for interrogation and remained POWs until the end of the war.
The five days of Big Week marked the most concentrated period of operations for Eighth Air Force up to that time. On its opening day, the Eighth mounted its first 1,000-plane raid. It flew 3,300 bomber sorties in those five days, accompanied by coordinated Fifteenth Air Force bombing attacks and nightly RAF Bomber Command strikes. It was a week marked by many heroic deeds, among them Lt. James Lewis’s gallant attempt to save his tailgunner by sharing a chute with the wounded man.
By the end of Big Week, German aircraft production had declined, though only temporarily, by 50 percent. The achievement of Allied air superiority and eventual collapse of the Third Reich were in sight over a still-distant horizon.
Thanks to Will Lundy, 44th Bomb Group historian.
Published August 1995. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.